Texts on story structure are often recommended to writers with books in development: The Writer’s Journey, The Story Grid, Into The Woods, Story. They have many useful insights on how we can shape our content (e.g., inciting incident; events of mounting tension; a resolution delivering a payoff), but it can be frustrating that so many of their reference points come from the screen rather than the page. Star Wars, Thelma and Louise, Rocky, Eastenders. It’s only to be expected, I suppose – so many seminars on story are designed for screenwriters, after all.
But storytelling on screen is a very different undertaking from storytelling in book form.
First thing that comes to mind: the rollerskate dance in Heaven’s Gate. Now, I know that movie gets a bad rap (mostly, it seems, because of its production costs spiralling out of control – and I also know that some viewers have a problem with the likelihood of a roller disco in the Wild West, to which I say: this is fiction, and I’m not sure they danced ‘The Blue Danube’ at Harvard commencement ceremonies quite like a Hollywood musical either, but do we really care?!). But: this rollerskating scene took my breath away when I first saw it. The pacing, the buildup, the music, the acting, the energy of all those bodies circling around on roller skates. It’s a SPECTACLE. It assaults all our senses, like good scenes in movies often do. (Other highlights in this trailer.)
Films are visual storytelling. Books can’t complete with that. It might take several pages to fill in every last detail of a richly rendered scene that a film can impress on viewers in an instant, and thereafter develop through well-paced action, carrying us along into represented realities. Films work on several senses at once: sights, sounds, movement through time.
Many manuscripts of novels are written as if they are films: they’re all foreground action, with maybe a sweeping backdrop every now and then. And though action is important, and should even dominate most of many stories, it rarely needs to be the entirety of a piece of novel or short story. (I have another perspective on this, and particularly on the idea of the narrator, in a different post: Tell Me A Story.)
Books can’t prompt so many senses all at once, like a film. They just have words. Which sounds blindingly obvious, until I think about those manuscripts of novels that are all foreground action (‘overwrought Dr Who‘, I sometimes call it).
So: what can storytelling in words rather than visual storytelling achieve? Take the following paragraph from the second page of The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris:
Starling came from people who do not ask for favors or press for friendship, but she was puzzled and regretful at Crawford’s behavior. Now, in his presence, she liked him again, she was sorry to note.
I read that last night and asked myself: Why did that paragraph give me pause? What is it about that paragraph that can only be done in a book?
It comes after a page of description and dialogue, scene-setting stuff with a visual and auditory quality, where we are introduced to Clarice Starling at the Behavioral Science section of the FBI Academy; she has grass in her hair and grass stains on her windbreaker, and her hands smell of gunsmoke (fantastic word), and she has just been summoned to a meeting with a senior colleague she thought was ignoring her. All these aspects of narrative content. Then this opening is punctuated by the paragraph I quote above, which is what might be called editorialising, or commentary, and is, I guess, a form of telling in its flat-out assessment of someone’s personal characteristics. It’s not wildly specific or concrete (as we are often told to make writing), either.
But I like it. I like how a narrator steps in here with this pithy quality of omniscient observation, telling us where Starling came from; then we slip into her mind, but still observing her from the outside too. We can have both things at once, be inside and out, and enjoy weird and undefinable other things as well. Explanations, descriptions, a bit of an ironic edge, control of narrative focus and psychic distance. A voice, a style. Personality emerges in the writing as a strong narrator takes charge and speaks directly to the reader. It could, for some, feel excessive or unnecessary, but this is the gnarly little paragraph that hooked me.
In film, I imagine that something of these ideas could be suggested through mannerism in performance, and Jodie Foster of course made this part all her own. But a film is not going to give us that style of confident, worldly-wise know-all narrating that holds us tight in the way only a good book can, and voiceovers can seem clunky. (A good film does other things that a book cannot, like make you scream out loud in an auditorium full of 400 cinema goers. But let’s not go there.)
Another example from further in:
For a few seconds she had felt an alien consciousness loose in her head, slapping things off the shelves like a bear in a camper.
What a great little image. Lurid, a bit random perhaps – but surely that’s the point. Again, some of this – what is it? confusion? frustration? – could be conveyed on film through performance (Jodie grimaces), but there is something quite delicious in those turns of phrase and picture. A literal rendition of that on film would seem surreal, even comic. The great thing about prose is that we don’t have to pin things down literally. We can conjure up such an image, let it do its work, then zoom along.
A few tangents.
Something important about storytelling in words is that it is suggestive: the imagination is given free rein, and doing some of the work is part of the engagement of reading. Mood can be more important than explanation. Mood is important in film too, but so often it’s achieved through visual or sound effects: light, colour, music, animation.
In a film, the writer’s vision gets joined to those of the director, actors, camera technicians, lighting artists, musicians, the wig mistress, and all those other people whose names are listed in the credits. A book may offer a kind word or two in the acknowledgements for editors, agents, designers, readers, book doctors who gave input along the way. But it’s the author’s name and the author’s name alone that goes on the cover.
Plus film can become quite literal; if you’re a big fan of Jodie Foster’s earlier film Freaky Friday, for example, it might take a little time to shake off that association and immerse yourself into Starling’s world. World War Z might be set in Philadelphia, but what happens when you know Glasgow well enough to spot locations where it was shot?
Another tangent: reading is quite solitary, while watching a film is a collective event (unless you’re hermetically sealed into your iPad). Reading can be contemplative, even an act of communion: ‘the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings’. When we are writing stories to be read (rather than watched), how are we sharing and exchanging intimacies? Even a pageturning thriller such as Silence of the Lambs enjoys an entrancing quality of intimacy that spurs us on and turns the pages.
I’m inclined to think that storytelling is at heart quite instinctive, so maybe we do best by fostering the conditions in which that instinct soars and flourishes, and where mood and intimacy can be cultivated. In which case, maybe it’s more important to start with some of the other aspects of craft, rather than top-down theories of structure. How does story emerge from, say, voice, or character? As with: Edna O’Brien, my new goddess and inspiration. I just finished her Country Girl. It’s memoir, so it’s still story-as-words (though this book has a few photos too).
And such words! Such a voice, such lyricism. Flick to any page.
I would go out to the fields to write. The words ran away with me. I would write imaginary stories, stories set in our bog and our kitchen garden, but it was not enough because I wanted to get inside them, in the same way as I was trying to get back into the maw of her my mother. Everything about her intrigued me: her body, her being, her pink corset, her fads and the obsessions to which she was prone. One was about a little silver spoon …
The maw of her mother! What a leap! But we follow her. (And the following tale of the spoon sticks in the mind too.) Again, I see that blending of inner and outer worlds that is something only a book can do. And again, we have a direct mode of address.
And descriptions such as:
Our house was full of prayer books and religious treasuries with soft, dimpled leather covers and gold edging to the pages that glittered when the sun broke through the tiny windows in the pantry where they were stacked. There were ribbons of various colours, so that one could open a page at random and read the Seven Dolours of the Blessed Virgins, prayers to Saint Peter of Antioch, Saint Bernadine of Siena, Saint Aelrod, Saint Cloud, Saint Columba and Saints Colman of Cloyne, of Dromore, of Kilmacduagh and, most wrenchingly of all, the prayers specially addressed to the stigmata of Saint Francis, that he may crucify the flesh from its vices.
Such rhythms, such allusions, such punctuation, such poetry. Such gory imagery, such choice words. Such voice. This is what we call style.
Later we are told ‘Dublin was full of stories, some funny and spry and sometimes gruesome’. (Spry: what a great word!) Edna lets the stories just tell themselves.
So how does that help us? What happens if we don’t feel like born storytellers?! (Which does beg a question …) Well, I bet that Edna had to work at this, however natural her command of language seems, and in fact she tells us she did work at this from an early age. Writing became an instinct for her. Even if we don’t have fields to write in, we can also make writing instinctive through regular practice.
Beyond that, I imagine that Edna’s preoccupation might not have been with calculating the right character arc, but with establishing the right feeling in the writing (she talked a lot about language and feeling in writing when I saw her read last week). This reminds me of my friend Bobbie Louise Hawkins, who in her teaching doesn’t really favour the idea of plot; she is also all about feeling – one of the classes she teaches is in fact called The Feeling Tone.
I’m also thinking of Stephen King in On Writing, where he states how he distrusts plot, because our lives are largely plotless, and because he believes ‘plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible’. He says stories are found things, and compares writing to fossil-hunting, making an analogy with digging for dinosaur bones. Writing is a process of excavation, getting intimate with your characters and situations, finding the best way to express what needs to be said, and actually working out what needs to be said in the first place: finding your way intuitively into and through your content, communing with your own words and ideas and getting them down on the page.
I really don’t know how a screenplay is written, but I don’t think we need an all-encompassing story structure as a starting point for writing a novel. Such a theoretical system might even get in the way of other things a novel needs (voice, mood, intimacy). Sometimes the finished work ends up feeling like writing-by-numbers.
A grasp of structure will most certainly be very useful for any writer at some point. Some people do like to plan out stories before writing them. And if the Master (Stephen King) says that plot is ‘the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice’, that last resort of a good writer comes in handy once you have finished a first draft, and are ready to extract the right slant or emphasis from your content. This sort of knowledge can be invaluable, though maybe it’s knowledge we understand deeply, but practise lightly.
And in fact the best texts on structure for novelists don’t ardently promote watertight narrative theories, but are open and non-prescriptive in their approaches. One helpful book that uses a lot of examples from prose fiction (and also film) is 20 Master Plots by Ronald Tobias. I also like The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler: its use of archetypes for characters and its steps in a story are easily grasped. The Story Grid is an enthusiastic analysis of various story types as well as ingredients of a story informed by Shawn Coyne’s own experience as an editor at a major New York publishing house; you do have to familiarise yourself with some technical terms, but he introduces them in a practical manner. He carries out a close reading of the book of Silence of the Lambs, among other things, and he does use a lot of references to films too – but these really seem to go with the territory, and I can’t speak, as I so often use The Wizard of Oz or Star Wars when I am talking story (yes, my points of reference in film are ancient too).
I might have to read Edna’s memoir against The Story Grid – I can think of a few inciting incidents that move her book along. And setting that analysis of narrative in the context of a memoir makes me think how so much in our everyday lives can also be defined in this way. Isn’t therapy a form of story structure?
There are other useful books on story structure – these are just the ones I find myself recommending most for their ease and common sense. But do remember that advice on visual storytelling might need adapting if you’re writing a book.
If you want to write a film: write a screenplay.
And if you want to write a book: know what a book can do that other forms cannot. In your own reading, look out for those tics of style, those gnarly little paragraphs where intruding narrators hook readers in. Then go away and write some of your own.